Farid Barsoum, Executive Producer of Al Jazeera Correspondent:

For me this film is very much how Ramsey proposed it: A personal look at how Japanese culture is reflected in their trains, and the trains, being such an important part of Japanese culture, in turn reflected the culture.

I think the film stays true to that, be it the technological advances, the social connectivity, the importance of trains as a point of national pride.

As time moves on you see how the economic realities of Japan, the demographics, the population getting older, the moving away from the rural areas, has now shifted. The trains are reflecting that as well. I found that fascinating that something as seemingly trivial as trains, reflects such a bigger context of Japanese life.

I was also fascinated by, to be fair, the potential for humour and I think that’s in the film. The Japanese have a very unique way of seeing a lot of things and we see that in the "train idol" and the musicians. You see that in the old man trying to maintain the steam engine lines and then the monk who quite beautifully talks about trains and life being so similar.

That was important to me - it wasn’t just culture and trains, there was a layer of sort of quirkiness that I found really fascinating.

When it comes to filmmaking and editing, you look for flow, you look for pace, the continuity of a thought process, of a journey really. So, the journey needs to continue, whether it goes off course for a bit or shifts to something else. I’ve got to feel that it’s constantly moving me somewhere, to the next step, and eventually reach a conclusion that makes every element matter.

When Micah and Marie, who have worked on previous Al Jazeera Correspondents, send their rough cuts, they tend to be around 90 minutes long, even longer. What's often difficult after having seen it in that form is how to reduce it because you get attached to so much material.

I find with this true with their films in particular because all the scenes are always quite well-shot, they’re interesting and beautifully put together. If you look at any of their scenes, they have cutaways of the most obscure things, but they always really work and have a connection to the theme and feel of the film. You get attached to all of that. Losing scenes is always done with regret - more than with any of the other filmmakers I work with, I feel that with them. They bring good things to the screen, because their scenes are always so rich it’s really difficult.

Micah Garen & Marie-Helene Carleton, filmmakers and directors:

Our process as filmmakers is to work as much as possible in a cinema verite style. That means following characters as they interact and events unfold. This allows us to capture fantastic natural moments like the Dr Yellow bullet train going by during an interview with the JTB timetable editor, and the reactions to seeing it. It also means filming a great deal of material, particularly if we are discovering the story as we go. 

For "Off the Rails: A Journey Through Japan," we had a general concept of what would be interesting, and a plan, but a lot was left to discovery during our two-week journey through Japan. With all of this material, we go into the edit room and start crafting scenes. For us, this stage is like painting, you have a palate you work with, and your canvas is the editing station.

From those scenes we end up with a two-hour rough cut. We then begin to craft the story based on our narrative concept, what scenes were most compelling and worked together. Films are experienced in a linear, sequential way, so scenes will change depending on how they sit in context to what comes before and after. 

In filmmaking, you have to be willing to let go of great material, also known as "murdering your darlings". There are always scenes you love that just don't work in the service of the overall film. To get to 48 minutes, we had to trim many scenes, and lose others altogether.

The woman who worked on Hiroshima trolley cars after the bombing

 


Micah and Marie-Helene: Satoko Sasaguchi was a young girl in Hiroshima when the US dropped a nuclear bomb on August 6, 1945 near the end of World War II. She and her sister, who studied in the city, both survived. They worked on the trolley cars following the destruction of the city.

Sasaguchi says the trolley was an important symbol for rebuilding Hiroshima, and that the city made an effort to get the trolleys running quickly.

In Japan, the rebuilding of the train system after disasters is often seen as a way to boost morale, and help to rebuild society.  

Sasaguchi's story is emotional and interesting, but we could not include it because of time constraints. In particular, the same idea of rebuilding after a disaster was explored with the train driver in northern Japan who faced the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011. 

Farid: The Hiroshima one for me was the most difficult to lose because of its importance - historically, culturally, everything it means politically; what happened there is consequential to everything.

I think in their reshaping, the overall film made it somewhat of a tangent.

An activist campaigning against post-tsunami sea walls

 


Micah and Marie-Helene: Tomoyuki Miura has been campaigning in the north of Japan against the building of massive sea walls following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 that devastated the region.  

The sea walls are being built to protect towns from flooding in the event of another tsunami. They will, however, also almost completely block people from connecting with, or even seeing, the ocean.

It is a compromise Miura does not believe Japan should make as he fears that people are losing their vital connection to the ocean.

Miura also talks about the lack of rebuilding of some of the local railway lines, which were also destroyed.

Though an important topic, and very relevant to the struggle to rebuild the north, we were not able to include his scene because it was tangential to the storyline. 

The sea walls are a separate issue. In the longer cut, we felt it changed the tone and slowed the pacing of the film.

Farid: The problem for me with the activist was that it was really delving into a different subject..

While it related indirectly to the train system and how all the infrastructure in the area had been damaged and needed to be rethought and replaced, it  was a bit too much about the wall.

People were literally going to have this massive wall put between them and the ocean to protect them; it will completely change the area.

While that was interesting, it wasn’t quite directly linked to the trains and to the narrative, but I do think it would make a really fascinating story: The consequences of the tsunami you don’t think about.

So I found that fairly easy to take out of the film. I think, however, there’s an incredible film to be made on the post-apocalyptic impact of these natural tragedies.

The husband of a train crash victim

 


Micah and Marie-Helene: In April 2005, Yasakazu Asano's wife was tragically killed in a commuter train crash. His sister was also killed, and his daughter who was on the train still suffers from PTSD. The driver of the train was 80 seconds late, and sped up to keep on schedule.  

The scene is very powerful and speaks to the Japanese culture of speed, being on time, and the potential consequences.  

He reminds us that a culture of safety is equally important to balance the focus on speed. He also asks the viewer to question the larger premise of the ever-increasing need for speed and efficiency.  

To honour his wife’s memory, he made it his mission to get the train company, JR Central, to enhance safety procedures so this would not happen again.  

This was the hardest scene to cut, and we tried to make it work up until the last days of editing. But in the end, we felt that this important scene needed to be longer to do justice to Mr. Asano’s story and message, and the 48 minute film as a whole worked without it.

Farid: This was a difficult one - it was the last of these deleted scenes that we removed.

The film was still too long and we had to remove something. I looked at it quite closely and they were quite keen on it to show something a little more serious - that there's consequence to our technological developments. However, the thesis that was put in the film was that the need for speed is what ended up causing this tragedy.

If you look at it more closely, it wasn't so much the need for speed but it was more the result of a timing error. I don't know the origin of the error, but a train was late and therefore sped up to make its deadline.

I think had the emphasis been on the need for precision, the need for being on time, had it been focused that way, it might have survived. Speed caused the gravity of the accident but it wasn’t speed, as such, that caused the tragedy.

Source: Al Jazeera